"If you have to seat a party like this, I have one piece of advice: Put [Sean] 'Diddy' [Combs] up front."
Four months ago, as Clive Davis was getting off the Acela train in Washington, D.C., a fellow passenger introduced himself to the Sony Music Entertainment chief creative officer and angled for an invite to the gala Davis has been hosting since 1976 on the eve of the Grammy Awards. The man in question: former Vice President Joe Biden.
"'I know who you are,'" Biden told Davis, according to Davis' son, Doug, recounting the story. "'Pleasure to meet you -- I'd love to come to your Grammy party.'"
While there's no word yet on whether Biden will be in attendance at the storied event, hosted by Davis and The Recording Academy on Jan. 27, there will be no shortage of A-listers rubbing shoulders at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel as the party returns to New York for the first time in 15 years. Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Strahan, Meg Ryan, Rob Reiner and Andrew Lloyd Webber are expected to be among the approximately 1,000 guests, along with Grammy nominees, top-tier executives and music royalty JAY-Z and Beyoncé.
JAY-Z, a 21-time Grammy winner and current eight-time nominee, will be honored with the Grammy Salute to Industry Icons, a designation usually bestowed on executives.
Hosting the soiree in the Big Apple means "solving new problems, like how to deal with coat check for 1,000 people," says Doug, an entertainment lawyer who has executive-produced the gala for over a decade alongside his father. It also means squeezing East Coast glitterati into the affair.
"Combined with honoring JAY-Z, who has such a presence in New York, we have just been deluged with requests to come to the party," says Doug. "The list of bold names exceeds what we're used to in Los Angeles. JAY-Z means a lot to the fashion community, media companies and Madison Avenue."
Another challenge this year has been the seating chart, which has been redrawn amid an executive shake-up among the upper reaches at record labels. Though guests are encouraged to check "their grudges at the door with their coats," says Doug, he, his father and event planner Stacy Carr take pains to avoid seating rivals too close, putting guests' names on small tiles and rearranging them until they arrive at the perfect constellation of table companions. "It's a night where the swords are laid down and everybody can celebrate music together. You want to set people up to have a really good time," says Doug. "So we try to [seat] people thematically, people we know have good relationships or maybe worked together in the past."
And sometimes seemingly random pairings spark new friendships. On the Jan. 16 episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the host and guest Jon Bon Jovi reminisced about meeting a few years earlier at the Pre-Grammy Gala. "It was the greatest table of all time. It was you, Sheryl Crow, me, Richie Sambora and my 14-year-old daughter," said Colbert, before Bon Jovi praised the party's host: "Clive's a legend," he said. "It's great to be around the real legends."
Adjusting the seating often continues throughout the evening, sometimes sparking mid-gala overhauls. A few years ago, Paul McCartney sent his regrets because his Grammy rehearsal conflicted with the party. However, he finished early, and the Beatle's security team phoned that he was on his way.
"You don't just put Paul McCartney in an empty seat," says Doug. "You ensure he has the best seat in the place. We moved a group to different tables, opening up a spot on the floor -- while the event was going on, mind you. Then everybody watched while Paul came in through the back and went to his seat. It was a goose-bump moment."
With the evening including performances from some of the world's biggest music stars, those seated closest to the stage are expected to be enthusiastic and responsive to the performers.
"If you have to seat a party like this, I have one piece of advice," says Doug: "Put [Sean] 'Diddy' [Combs] up front. Nobody is a better audience than he is. He dances for the uptempo songs, he testifies for the ballads. He sets the tone for the room."
He also helped set the tone on the party's darkest night in 2012 when Clive Davis's protege Whitney Houston died hours before the event's start. "Without a doubt that was the most dramatic and trying and emotional" year, says Doug Davis, adding that it was also "the most rewarding, in retrospect, given how the music community came together to mourn together that night…and the speech [Diddy] gave and the song selections that people adapted to as a memorial."
There have been a few close calls. Several years ago, Justin Timberlake got sick at the last minute, and with no rehearsal, Smokey Robinson went straight from the red carpet to the stage to fill in with a flawless rendition of "My Girl." And two years ago, after another cancellation, producer Richard Perry suggested Carly Simon make a rare appearance to fill in. "She was in Martha's Vineyard [Mass.]. We got a sponsor to cover her private jet to Los Angeles, and 48 hours later she came in and brought the house down," says Doug.
When he isn't producing the gala, Doug has a thriving practice representing artists like LL Cool J and Swizz Beatz, and executives such as Apple Music's Larry Jackson and Columbia's new chairman/CEO, Ron Perry. But every year, he carves out time to help plan his father's big night. "The evening's a reflection of my dad," he says. "That I can be there in support of him, I treasure it. I know what my role is."